Refuge 2019: Displacement

Keg de Souza, We Built This City, 2016Bookending the Welcome to Country is Allara Briggs Pattison, who builds her performances from the sound up, turning small pieces from her double bass into larger refrains, then folds those in with repeated fragments of voice. The foyer of the Arts House is full, we are all present. Yet, as Artistic Director, Emily Sexton, points out – we are all displaced.

Displacement is the theme for this year’s Refuge program, now in its 4th iteration, exploring art’s response to the climate crisis, particularly the indigenous response. There are different threads and events to follow, but today I’m sticking to those sessions listed under the heading of Portage.

“The carrying of a boat or its cargo between two navigable waters,” is the literal definition of portage. Considering the geography (let alone Australia’s performance at the recent Pacific Islands Forum), it’s impossible not to dwell on the ramifications of rising sea levels, or increased flooding and how well or ill-equipped we are to deal with it.

But, other meanings can be drawn from the word also, hopeful ones though no less critical, such as carrying or transmitting information. Indeed the passing of knowledge is a constant throughout the day. We’ve had difficulty heeding all the warnings, so perhaps we’ll listen today to some ideas of what we might do next.

Some of the sessions – like Shelter – Weavers Walk – are actively tactile, with various fibre artists and staff from Parks Victoria taking us around the corner and down the road to Royal Park. There are plants to touch and smell, some that insulate clothes, others that cut flesh. We’re shown various grasses can be woven to catch fish, or store and carry goods, or laid and bound together in such a way as to provide a roof over our heads.

Later in the afternoon, those same artists lead Shelter – Weaving Workshop, tracing the act of weaving in their lives both personally, culturally, and pragmatically. Strands of different people, stories, and fibres are brought together over the next few hours.

I make a small bag, by which I mean I make 14% of a bag before Vicki Kinai finishes the rest in an act of generosity that sits simple and wonderful among a day full of these small gifts of history and the present time.

The last session is an immersive installation, Flotilla, sitting on a bamboo raft under pulsating lights as alarms and the din of future catastrophes oppress the space, then give way to calmer noises and impressions. The last moments are simple, now resting in the dark to the gentle sound of the sea.

It lingers, reinforcing the note that while the theme of the Refuge 2019 is “Displacement”, the moral is “Return” – that looking back may provide some necessary answers in face of what’s to come.

Refuge 2019: Displacement
Arts House – North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne
Activities: Saturday 31 August 2019
Season continues to 7 September 2019
Information and Bookings:

Image: Keg de Souza and Claire Coleman, We Built This City, 2016 – photo by Document Photography

Review: David Collins